Sunday, June 26, 2011
01. Glass Jar
02. Interlude 1
03. Adult Goth
04. Chinese High
06. Interlude 2
07. Romance Layers
09. Interlude 3
10. Thru And Thru
Gang Gang Dance started as free-form noiseniks; over the years, they've managed to mellow out without moving to the center-- evolving into purveyors of pan-cultural body-music, marrying club beats with lyrics about communing with the dead. Like Arthur Russell before them, they give equal floorspace to the spiritual and the sensual. By those loopy standards, Eye Contact-- the group's latest album-- is Gang Gang Dance's finest, weirdest, and most uplifting statement yet.
Eye Contact doesn't kick off so much as it wakes up, easing into existence via 11-minute opener, "Glass Jar". Synth and piano arpeggios shine through the stereo field, percolating through a filter of jazz percussion before settling into a propulsive Eastern groove. It's a song about reincarnation. It's "Darkstar" and Alice Coltrane and the Boredoms in one blissed-out burst of sound. They're not much of a singles band, though. Gang Gang Dance's vision tends to require a larger, album-length, canvas. Since 2005's God's Money, each of the band's records has played as a single piece-- each song slurring into the next, building toward an ecstatic climax, mirroring the feel of a concert performance or a DJ set. Eye Contact holds to that ideal. Seven songs are strung together into a single composition, bound by abstract ligatures.
But it's an improvement of the formula. On Eye Contact, Gang Gang strike a better balance of song craft and atmosphere. The band's previous record, Saint Dymphna, had admirable futurist-pop ambitions-- collaging elements of hyphy, grime, techno, and contemporary R&B into a psychedelic stew-- but it sometimes came off overcooked. The instrumentals were often bursting with soupy sonic details, while Gang Gang's passes at honest-to-goodness pop-- other than Kate Bush-homage "House Jam"-- were at times stiff and over-considered.
Eye Contact is considerably more relaxed. It's a smooth and moody record. The composed parts are more memorable. The interludes are, well, shorter. Following Dymphna, the band's original drummer, Tim Dewit, parted ways with the group. His distinctive, stuttering rhythms are missed, but his replacement, Jesse Lee-- a steadier and harder hitting player -- brings a more consistent feel to the rhythm section. Ariel Pink bassist Tim Koh adds some quiet storm-style bass to the airy and melodic "Chinese High". Hot Chip frontman Alexis Taylor wanders onto the mic during "Romance Layers" to croon over some a new jack-era soul.
And yet this is not a pop record, per se, but the stuff of pop records collected, melted down, and then dribbled Jackson Pollock-style onto a canvas. Singer Lizzi Bougatsos borrows melodies from Indian pop, Brian DeGraw swipes some sub bass from the UK underground, and guitarist Josh Diamond nicks some riffs from North Africa. But Gang Gang aren't just collecting exotic hooks for the sake of bragging rights. The band seems to consciously gravitate toward cultures and genres where music is still overtly tethered to spirituality. Maybe it's because they miss their friends. Eye Contact is a ghost-heavy record. Two songs are dedicated to fallen New York art scene comrades. "Glass Jar" pays homage to former band mate Nathan Maddox, who was killed by a lightning bolt in 2002. "Sacer" is a shout-out to artist Dash Snow, who perished in 2009, from a drug overdose.
Eye Contact dials back the aural fog, at least by Gang Gang standards. It's a tighter and more focused record that pares back the band's habit for noisy embellishment and psychic jewelry to reveal taught rhythms and catchy hooks. "In the past, I imagined our music being more about closing your eyes and escaping," explained DeGraw during a recent interview. "This one felt wide-eyed, as if we were just staring at the listener." Whether they're comfortable with the outside world is less clear. "Better call the neurosurgeon," sings Bougatsos on album closer "Thru and Thru". "Our dreaming space it is open."...www.pitchfork.com
Saturday, June 25, 2011
01 L Y F
02 Cave Song
03 Such a Sad Puppy Dog
04 Summas Bliss
05 We Bros
06 Spitting Blood
08 Concrete Gold
09 14 Crowns for Me & Your Friends
10 Heavy Pop
WU LYF are for the children. Thus far, World Unite Lucifer Youth Foundation have taken equal inspiration from A Clockwork Orange and fellow Mancunians Happy Mondays to play out that adolescent fantasy of having every bird-flip rewarded by authority figures they're meant to offend. The British rags will help you fill in the rest, but here are a few talking points: getting a cold call from Michel Gondry only to ignore it; charging desperate A&R's 50 pounds for a demo; telling the UK press to fuck off, only to have them respond with statements like, "they're reinventing the wheel." Their web presence is so cryptic, they make Dead Air Space look like Lil B's Twitter feed. The band's incomprehensible frontman, Ellery Roberts, is an experiment in rock vocal abstraction, and yet sold-out crowds sing along to every proto-linguistic grunt. But the centerpiece of Go Tell Fire to the Mountain-- a stunning lockstep of drum rolls, tart guitar chords, and a maddening chant for raising beers and clenched fists-- makes it clear: This is life-affirming music, repulsed by hype and cynicism. The name of the song? "We Bros".
The first word of the title is the important thing: Go Tell Fire celebrates togetherness. Approach the record with no context whatsoever, and it's fairly trad indie rock for crescendo junkies that could be laid over just about anything-- a stirring football highlight, your morning commute-- for instant widescreen effect. Dissatisfied with the sound they were getting in traditional studios, WU LYF self-produced in an abandoned church, which could once again be sniffed at as another publicity stunt. But they needed every bit of open airspace to capture their sound in full, and the building itself acts as an active participant. Silvery, melodic guitar lines are given extra dimension with decay and release, and a pipe organ draws lengthy sustain. And man, what it does for the percussion: the term "crash cymbal" has rarely sounded so literal, and a critical mass of reverb pushes the kick drum's natural tone to its limit on "Dirt" and "14 Crowns For Me & Your Friends".
But underneath all that bouncing room echo, you hear a band trying to live up to its own hype, unglamorously woodshedding until every arrangement was tight as hell. It's danceable in the same way older Modest Mouse is-- a sweet spot that feels more limber than rock and too jittery to congeal into a groove like funk, but always in the service of some sort of physicality. Even the ballads rarely feel settled: The opening piano chords of "Concrete Gold" echo around a kick drum beat, before a call-and-response chorus that evokes the melodicism of D.C. hardcore.
So while musically it connects the divergent anthem-fashioning of Explosions in the Sky or Wolf Parade, Roberts' vocals evade just about any facile comparison. Attempts to classify it have ranged from Captain Beefheart to a variety of feral animals or malfunctioning household appliances, all making the same point, more or less: this is a trial by fire. He's screaming "I love you forever!" on the first track ("L Y F") while revealing an alternate translation for their band name, yet in the urgency of Roberts' voice, you can see the matted fur and gnarled teeth of an endearingly ugly stray that you're still hesitant to love back (see also: his performance on the aptly titled military funeral march "Such a Sad Puppy Dog").
And yet, similar to the way Jónsi applied the rhythms and phonetics of Hopelandic to convey an immutable, beatific divinity, Roberts lives within WU LYF's musical viscera as a vocal embodiment of animal instinct, projecting from the primitive part of the brain that can sense danger and react before it even acknowledges the source. You can occasionally make out his marching orders on "Cave Song" and "Dirt", but Roberts and WU LYF match up spasm for spasm to make their point clear: keep your head on a swivel, move. Do something. WU LYF bark out the title of "Spitting Blood" repeatedly over heraldic organ, and it's an evocative image leaving its completion up to the listener. On the chorus, Ellerby and crew yell "we are so happy! Happy to see...," the intelligibility fittingly cutting off right there. After all, what is the phrase Go Tell Fire to the Mountain besides an open-ended call to arms?
Closer "Heavy Pop" might be the only time WU LYF actively and clearly suggest what they're getting at (indeed, a dispatch on the band's mailing list describes the album as "10 tracks of true heavy pop"). But Go Tell Fire rarely scans as "pop music," and at times, it's content to give into pure texture and drift. Rather, this "heavy pop" translates to me as populism of real heft. More artistically rewarding records have been made this year, but when I think about WU LYF in the manner of Iceage or Odd Future as musicians that have made me genuinely excited about their potential impact on listeners, the same things that make them seem juvenile-- the artistic and personal volatility, the semblance of a roving gang more than a band, the invitation to indulge in your most disturbing impulses and yet feel morally superior to an ill-defined majority-- are the same things that feel totally galvanizing. And it's easy to imagine Go Tell Fire to the Mountain giving disaffected listeners the promise of an entry to something beyond themselves in a way that James Blake or Bon Iver can't. Maybe you've grown past that sort of thing, but what about a record of exhilarating expanse and passion that sounds like indie rock and yet feels way bigger? Well, Go Tell Fire to the Mountain is that too...www.pitchfork.com
01. Something About You
02. Something About You (Jas Shaw Alt Mix)
03. You Know I Know It
"Coma Cat" was released two Januarys ago, in the dead of winter, when people needed a pick-me-up. It delivered in spades—and kept doing so right up to the end of the year, when it was at or near the top of endless dance publications' 2010 lists (RA placed it second). Its vibe was pretty retro, but not tied to a single period: the big piano chords, bounding bassline and stuttering stab-pattern vocals would have fit anywhere from mid-'80s NYC to acid-house London to mid-'90s Chicago and, obviously, beyond.
"Something About You," on the other hand, is more specifically reminiscent of the post-acid-house explosion—gauzy and E'd up, beholden to the idea of house as a post-sampling environmental groove rather than simply a set of rules to follow. The murmured title phrase and Hoover-noisy stab pattern play off each other like twin poles of what people used to mean by "house is a feeling," only here it doesn't seem like dogma. Jas Shaw's remix, meanwhile, slooooows it down a bunch, a la Belgian new beat, from the same period as the original recalls. It charmingly steps over the line between timeless and time-bound, even if its use value is pretty limited...www.residentadvisor.net
02. Lowcut Champagne
We're still recoiling from the impact of his 'Shawty' killer, as Teeth drops two uniquely programmed weapons on Noppa. Just like his anthem for Oneman's 502 label, these two are twysted something crazy. 'CNT' finds that deadly, tendon-twitching tension between rolling tribal drums, pivoting 2-step snares and Juked kicks while patently melancholic synths arc in the night sky overheard. Flipside, 'Lowcut Champagne' starts out equally brooding while seductive Latin drum syncopations slither and slyde like some El-B nexxism. Maaan, this is gooood...www.boomkat.com
1. Rollercoasters of the Heart
2. So Cruel
Give Ralph Cumbers, AKA Bass Clef, this much: He got the title of his newest A-side exactly right. James Lawrence of dance blog The Veal Pen refers to "Rollercoasters of the Heart" as "rave-step," and while that may be a step too far for the anti-neologist brigade (or, worse, the "there's only two kinds of music—good and bad" bores), it sounds exactly right to me. The clanking, oscillating synths and garbled diva samples are chopped and presented fresh like steak tartare. The beat keeps shifting but never feels willful, snares ricocheting over oscillating filter envelopes like an airplane starting to shake. The bass is forceful enough to rough you up and measured enough to make you pay attention. The track is candy-colored and menacing, always a smart combination.
"So Cruel" is a more obviously future-forward track, meaning that the low-end roll, slivered diva croon and craggy, trapped-under-ice snare all feel like a bionic version of something from five years ago instead of 20. It's a cool, weird one: the spongy, metallic synths seem to enter from oblique angles even when they recur regularly, and the robo-soul vocal adds real feeling, however show-offy its processing. What's more, both sides feel like halves of a conversation, which happens less often than it ought to...www.residentadvisor.net
Monday, June 20, 2011
B Falling Again
C Order Into Chaos (Digital Bonus)
Damon Kirkham picked an interesting time to launch his solo career. With the other half of Instra:mental capably establishing his own lone wolf identity as Boddika, and having just released their first collaborative album Resolution 653, the debut of his Jon Convex project has a lot to live up to. As you might expect, Kirkham's solo work isn't drastically different from either Boddika or Instra:mental, but this release for 3024 (his first in what is set to be a veritable barrage of releases on numerous labels) reveals a slightly looser sound than Boddika's nailed-down electro.
"Convexations" is the perfect "I'm here" announcement, sputtering with phased chords before igniting into its ferocious main section, all tremulous, quaking percussion. Pulling him farther away from his partner, "Falling Again" is the catchiest Instra:mental-related thing since "Watching You," incorporating an earwormy vocal refrain that stutters, glitches and catches snags in the gently scaling groove. Indeed, glitch is the common theme here, as Kirkham tortures his hardware to get the most gnarled, choked sounds he can. But its captivating warmth is far from the cold austerity of most "glitch" music. Digital-only bonus track "Order Into Chaos" sounds like a Resolution 653 leftover powered by Kirkham's unique supernova burnout, a decent but unnecessary add-on to an on-point and promising debut single...www.residentadvisor.net
a. Mean Streets Part 1
No messin', Falty DL is a proper badman. He's dominated the release schedule in 2011 with some truly outstanding releases and this 12" for Swamp81 is one of his best. Part 1 of 'Mean Streets' can be taken as a love-letter of sorts to his home turf in NYC, tucking swaggered Breakbeats under muggy, droning chords and shuffling Latin disco percussion to awe-inspiring effect, constantly turning oblique corners and jay walking across the groove with a masterful knowledge of his ends. Flipside, 'Moonshine' is another gangsters special, dispensing rolled Funk drums with symphonic strings in dextrous, spatialized 2011 style while 'Hard' brings the night proper, dipping between 'ardcore-chopped breaks and uncompromising subbass dynamics. Highly recommended!...www.boomkat.com
2. Tunnel Home
Rob Ellis, AKA Pinch is the owner of one of the original and highly influential Dubstep labels Tectonic who have signed, developed and released music from some of the scene’s biggest acts such as Joker, 2562, Cyrus, Digital Mystikz, Skream, Jack Sparrow and of course Pinch. Pinch is also founder of Subloaded, Bristol’s finest Bass rave, who has recently celebrated their 6th Birthday. This is Pinch’s first release on Mala’s DEEP MEDi imprint and we feel it’s his best work to date, we’ll sure you’ll agree. ‘Swish’ has been played relentlessly by Mala over the last year as well as a select lucky few able to get their hands on it such as Skream, Loefah, Youngsta and V.I.V.E.K. ‘Swish’ is classic Pinch, dark, moody and sparse, heavily influenced by Techno, with a sub- bass and kick to destroy any bass bin, pure soundsystem music.‘Tunnel Home’ on the flip sees Pinch in experimental mode switching up the tempo, 155. This still has the Pinch trademark darkness and efx’s but oozes a stealthily undercurrent and coldness with its complex drum programming and industrial approach, reminiscent of early Photek output...www.phonicarecords.com
02. Go Outside
03. You Know What I Mean
04. Most Wanted
05. Walk At Night
06. Never Heal Myself
07. Oh My God
08. Never Saw The Point
09. Bad Things
11. Rave On
When Cults' "Go Outside" first appeared on the web last year, it spread like wildfire. It was catchy and sweet, the kind of sing-along that felt like it was pulled from the air, with a sentiment perfect for anyone stuck in an office or addicted to the Internet. But how many communal sing-alongs can a band make before the approach goes stale? Cults have opted not to find out. "Go Outside" is on their debut album, and it still gives you your entire recommended daily allowance of vitamin D, but its dreamy drift is just one side of a band that proves it has the dexterity and songwriting chops to make a varied and memorable album.
Much has been made about the speed with which Cults signed to Columbia, as if they're the first group to release a debut album on a major. That kind of rapid ascent isn't anything new, but the speculation that came with it-- online chatter pronouncing them destined for the one-hit-wonder bin-- now looks grossly off the mark. At the center of the band's appeal is singer Madeline Follin's youthful alto. She has a tone that creates the impression you're listening to a precocious tween fronting a band well versed in Phil Spector's Back to Mono and three decades of climactic indie pop. The 1960s girl-pop element of their sound is pretty evident on the surface-- "You Know What I Mean" even borrows its verse melody from the Supremes' "Where Did Our Love Go"-- but what they've done with it is pure 21st century, cutting it with synths, guitars, and softly integrated samples.
The samples, of cult leaders speaking to their followers, could have been a distraction had they chosen to make a big deal out of them, but they're woven tightly into the album's sonic fabric and processed to varying degrees of decipherability, which turns them into an effective textural element. Those voices bounce around in the intro to "Oh My God", originally released last year as part of Adult Swim's singles program, but subtly remixed for the LP. The music hasn't changed here but the beat is amped up, and the bass has been moved forward in the mix, giving the song a much more powerful groove to support its melody. And if Follin's lyrics aren't necessarily deep-- "I can run away and leave you anytime/ Please don't tell me you know the plans for my life"-- she delivers them with relatable and affecting conviction.
This taps into a vein of petulance that runs through the album. "I don't need anyone else," from "Never Saw the Point", may read as a tossed-off line, but in a strangely positive way, it feels like the record's main message. Even the eternally sunny "Go Outside" ends on the lyric, "I think I want to live my life and you're just in my way." These are teenage sentiments, the kind of things you feel dumb for saying and thinking once you've navigated into your mid-twenties, but they're also universal sentiments during that stage of life when you're trying to figure out what kind of person you're going to be. Cults' use of elements borrowed from traditionally teen music-- girl groups, 50s prom-pop, bedroom indie pop-- plays along with the lyrics to create a little world where one minute Follin is singing a frustrated "fuck you" ("Never Heal Myself") and dreaming of escaping the next. Even the more formal pop explorations play to teen melodrama. The surging Spector pop of the record's anthemic opener "Abducted" compares falling in love to being kidnapped, and gives the other Cult, Brian Oblivion, a brief lead vocal to play the abductor.
At just over a half hour, Cults feels like the perfect length-- just long enough for the bus ride to school (or to work). But more importantly, it executes what it sets out to do masterfully while allowing the group room to grow and mature. They've also set themselves up to take their sound and subject matter in any number of possible directions in the future, and that's a good position for a young band to find itself in. Cults built up a lot of goodwill last year on the strength of just three tracks; on their debut album, they've rewarded it...www.pitchfork.com
01. Itchy Fingers
03. You’ll Improve Me
04. A Truly Happy Ending
05. The Reservoir
06. Second Chance
07. Kick The Can
09. Banana Ripple
Junior Boys started out making ridiculously complex music that had the intimate feel of a bedroom-based indie project. They'd mastered the intricate rhythmic syncopations of UK garage and Timbaland-style R&B, genres that had turned inventive and impossibly tricky rhythm programming into a game of pop oneupsmanship. Which is hardly the sort of thing that you'd want to hear an amateur's take on. But JBs' music was presented as if it were something fragile, homespun, made on a shoestring, full of negative space where the pop fizziness should be. It added an interesting, affecting friction to a sound that had defined glossy marquee pop around the turn of the millennium, like the difference between a love song written to please millions and one aimed at a special someone.
Pretty quickly, though, on 2006's So This Is Goodbye and especially 2009's Begone Dull Care, the JBs music started sounding like a million bucks, whatever it cost to make. This wasn't necessarily a bad thing. There had always been an element of slick soulful 1980s synth-pop in their sound, and when they jettisoned the new millennium R&B touches, it was shocking and enjoyable to find out they actually had the production chops to mimic that 1980s opulence. But what about that one-on-one intimacy that had originally made them stand out? In that sense, It's All True sounds like the album the Junior Boys have been moving toward their whole career. It's got the same low-key mixtape-from-a-lover charm as Last Exit, but sacrifices none of the appealing slickness of their last few albums.
Opener "Itchy Fingers" is actually a bit of bait-and-switch. It's the most deliriously dense tune on the album-- multiple basslines, stuttering R&B breakdowns, Art of Noise vocal stabs, zapping rave riffs, gleaming Japan/Duran-style guitar-- a master class in just how much you can squeeze into a track without its seeming cluttered. It recalls the carefully plotted textural overload of UK funky producers like Ill Blu, even if the feel is still more disco-house smooth than frantic Jamaican ragga. But "Itchy Fingers" is more or less an anomaly. It's All True mostly dials back the sonic excess in favor of more streamlined grooves. Thankfully, the album also corrects the lack-of-hooks problem that occasionally plagued Begone Dull Care. "Second Chance" is still stuffed with whirling video game noises, and some glorious creamy vocal multi-tracking, but what stands out on first listen is that naggingly catchy bassline. Plus Jeremy Greenspan gives us his best batch of choruses in quite a while, and good thing, too. While this is still headphone music par excellence, all those gleaming little sonic gewgaws and sneaky ear-worm off-beats are often pushed to the back of the mix, meaning the bright lounging-on-the-yacht electro hooks and Greenspan's voice both have to do a lot more work here.
Greenspan's singing is the best it's ever been on It's All True, proving the band's mixing desk skills aren't the only thing that's matured over the past eight years. Where he initially sounded wounded and winsome, almost hiding his voice behind the stark beats, here he displays a bouncy, strident sense of playfulness. Just check the ecstatic peak-after-peak outro on "Banana Ripple". There's also a new subtlety to his breathy just-out-of-bed tenderness that weirdly reminds me of Sam Prekop, no faint praise considering Prekop is the reigning master of this sort of thing. And speaking of subtle and tender, along with the large helpings of dancefloor joy, some of the album's most immediately arresting moments are its sparsest and most fragile. "The Reservoir" is an ultra-delicate experiment in seeing how far a rhythm can be stripped back-- something that would have fit perfectly on Last Exit, though it sounds far richer here, with Greenspan pulling off a falsetto he never would have been able to in the old days. Despite a few curveballs, like the pinpoint precise homage to Kraftwerk and the bleep techno Kraftwerk inspired on "Kick the Can", there's not much "new" here if you've been following the Junior Boys' sound over the last decade. But considering they seem to have perfected that sound here, it's hard not to feel like they should keep making albums like It's All True for a long, long time...www.pitchfork.com
01. Family Tree
02. Modern Art
03. Spidey's Curse
04. Mad Dog
05. Mr. Driver
06. Bicentennial Man
07. Go Out And Get It
08. Raw Meat
09. Bone Marrow
10. The Lie
12. Dumpster Dive
13. New DIrection
15. Don't Mess My Baby
16. You Keep On Running
There comes a time in every rock'n'roll band's career when they have to decide whether to get out of the garage or stay mired in the grease. Black Lips seem to want it both ways. With the release of their fourth studio album, 2007's Good Bad Not Evil, the Atlanta rockers saw their audience expand well beyond the garage-punk underground, thanks to a new alliance with Vice that yielded fawning New York Times profiles, Conan O'Brien appearances, and Virgin Mobile ad placements. At the time, a Hives-sized crossover success didn't seem out of the question, but the Lips seemed to handily kibosh that possibility with 2009's 200 Million Thousand, a sprawling mess that seemed designed to prove Black Lips could still out-scuzz and out-slop the lowest of the lo-fi.
The band's decision to record Arabia Mountain with Amy Winehouse producer Mark Ronson is surprising, not because they're at odds aesthetically-- the two camps do share an affinity for 1960s retro recording techniques-- but because of the timing: hooking up with an A-list producer is the sort of move that would've made more sense two years ago, to capitalize on Good Bad Not Evil's mainstream-breaching momentum. But whether they're responding to Vice's vocal dissatisfaction with 200 Million Thousand or following the example of their late friend Jay Reatard-- whose 2009 swan song Watch Me Fall saw him cleaning up his buzzsaw-pop sound without compromising his essence-- Black Lips seem more eager to play ball this time around. And unlike previous cautionary examples of garage-rock bands teaming up with Top 40 hitmakers (the Hives and Pharrell, the Mooney Suzuki and the Matrix), Ronson thankfully doesn't try to make Black Lips into something they're not.
Though an early single had the loaded title "New Direction", Arabia Mountain sticks to the same Nuggets-style playbook that's governed all previous Black Lips releases. Ronson, who produced nine songs and mastered another two recorded with Deerhunter's Lockett Pundt, simply gives the band the most faithful faux-60s production money can buy. If anything's changed here, it's Black Lips' point of emphasis on the Nuggets spectrum: Arabia Mountain draws less from the sinister psychedelia of the 13th Floor Elevators or the deranged blues of early Beefheart, and more from the toga-party-rockin' likes of the Sonics and the Premiers. So it favors the more amiable aspects of 60s garage-- frathouse-rocking saxophones, songs inspired by comic-book superheroes and baseball mascots, and grooooovy singing saw-- over anti-authoritarian attitudes and fuzzbox abuse.
Black Lips have never been shy about showing off their playful side, but in the past, these moments (Let It Bloom's poignant, poor-boy ballad "Dirty Hands", Good Bad Not Evil's outsider anthem "Bad Kids", 200 Million Thousand's sober-up pledge "Starting Over") nicely complemented their more raucous rave-ups, revealing a sincere softer side to the band's notorious delinquent image. With Arabia Mountain exuding a mostly cheeky and cheerful demeanor, you do lose some of the oppositional tension between innocence and insolence that always distinguished Black Lips from the garage-punk pack. And with a somewhat bloated 16-song tracklist, the album's abundance of open-roof Thunderbird anthems-- "Go Out and Get It", "Time", "New Direction"-- starts to feel somewhat interchangeable.
But Arabia Mountain's chiseled production and considerably tighter songcraft provides a better forum for showcasing the band's subversive sense of humor. The best songs here play up the dichotomy between their retro sound and modern preoccupations: bad acid trips at the Louvre (the Yardbirds-ish freakbeater "Modern Art"), exotic fad diets (the breezy Beach Boys-via-Ramones romp "Raw Meat"), and post-recession survival tactics (the spot-on country-Stones send-up "Dumpster Diving"). And in anticipation of those old-school fans who might view Arabia Mountain as a calculated act of careerism, the Lips throw a late-game curveball with the queasy closer "You Keep on Running", a creepy haunted-house trawl that finds Cole Alexander issuing the title's warning in a high-pitched squeal that's equally unnerving and silly. Its inclusion sends a none-too-subtle message to anyone who thinks they've got Black Lips all figured out: Arabia Mountain may be poised to push this band further over-ground, but they're not going up without a fight...www.pitchfork.com
02. Minnesota, WI
06. Hinnom, TX
09. Lisbon, OH
The guy who recorded an album alone in the woods. This line might end up on Justin Vernon's tombstone. There's something irresistible about the thought of a bearded dude from small-town Wisconsin retreating, heartbroken, to a cabin to write some songs-- especially when the result is a record that sounds as hushed and introspective as Bon Iver's 2007 debut, For Emma, Forever Ago. These days, Vernon is more likely to poke fun at the image, but it endures because it fulfils a fantasy for us as listeners. Even if we don't care for the outdoors, most of us occasionally want to escape our lives, be alone with our thoughts, and see if we can tap into something true. In a time of easy distraction, the idea of heading into a cabin at the edge of the world to create is alluring. By tying the intimacy of that image to Justin Vernon's music, we're able to take the trip with him.
Since that album's release, Vernon's approach to writing and recording has changed. "I don't find inspiration by just sitting down with a guitar anymore," he recently told Pitchfork. "I wanted to build a sound from scratch and then use that sound to make the song." That difference is clear on Bon Iver. Instead of something that scans as "folk," the music here is more like rustic chamber pop with an experimental edge that makes careful use of arrangement and dynamics. And rather than being tied together by a central theme of loss, Vernon has fully shifted into a more impressionistic mode; these songs are broader and more musically sophisticated than those on For Emma at every turn.
But the thread between this album and its comparatively skeletal predecessor is Vernon's voice, an instrument that feels warm and personal and close regardless of setting. Now that we've heard him singing hooks with Kanye West and taking the lead with Gayngs on songs that touch on R&B and soft rock, the general sphere of Vernon's voice is clear. He simultaneously evokes the grain and expression of soul music along with the mythological echoes of folk. But more importantly, no one else sounds like him. The Beach Boys have been the primary touchstone for layered vocals in indie music for years, but Vernon's timbre comes from somewhere else entirely. Where "Beach Boys harmonies" have a spiritual undercurrent that brings to mind a choirboy's dream of perfection, Vernon sounds like a man who has outgrown such ideas. His voice is earthy and wounded and, despite his astonishing upper register, not something you would describe as "angelic."
"Holocene" contains one of this album's many virtuosic vocal performances. "Part of me, apart from me," Vernon sings early on, and those six words hold a lot. The evocative nature of his diction is apparent even in a simple line like "I was not magnificent." He sounds centered and clear while taking stock and allowing memories to be mixed in with the details of the present. His conflicted vocals trigger a half-dozen feelings all at once before releasing the tension with a refrain that finds the fleeting moment where the world seems right: "I could see for miles, miles, miles."
Vernon posted Bon Iver's lyrics shortly after the album leaked last month, but they're not easy to parse-- the storytelling here is oblique. But there are connections. The song titles reference actual places ("Calgary") and places that sound real, but aren't ("Hinnom, TX", "Michicant"); they're less about geography and more about putting a name to a state of mind that mixes clarity and surrealism. And the deeper you sink into these tracks, the harder it becomes to extract specifics. One recurring element is intoxication-- lines about being drunk or high that come with recounted details. Which makes sense, because the album deals with escape and the struggle to get outside yourself. The narrator takes in what's around him, mixing those thoughts with memories of where he's been. Sometimes the lines have a startling specificity ("Third and Lake it burnt away, the hallway/ Was where we learned to celebrate," on "Holocene") and sometimes they contain words that seem to function more as sound ("fide" or "fane" on "Perth"). Throughout, there's a strong sense of an observer taking things in and processing confusing images, trying to figure out what can be learned.
If you caught Vernon live after For Emma, you gradually saw him putting more and more emphasis on his band, moving Bon Iver from that solitary project into something that felt more like the work of a group. And Bon Iver, with its rich and layered arrangements, extends that development in a striking direction that's both logical and surprising. Blending natural instrumentation supplied by recruited players-- such as string arranger Rob Moose (Antony and the Johnsons, the National, Arcade Fire) and a horn/woodwind section that includes versatile saxophonist Colin Stetson-- with an array of electronic and treated sounds, the album combines varied textures in ways that are ambitious and unusual but often subtle enough to miss on first glance.
At points, Bon Iver draws on the experiments of Volcano Choir, Vernon's side project with the post-rock outfit Collections of Colonies of Bees (members from that group play on the album). Freed from conventional verse/chorus/bridge/chorus structure, the songs become more like tone poems, patient explorations of moods that proceed deliberately but unpredictably. The holistic style is evident on opener "Perth", which builds from total silence into a crashing peak over the course of four short minutes. And there's an uncanny moment on the breathtaking "Michicant", a song in part about childhood, where a bicycle bell rings twice, pulling you deeper into Vernon's reverie. It's a simple, brief effect, but it's indicative of the how the album uses elemental sounds in unexpected ways.
Vernon has taken that voice, and these arrangements, and crafted an album that unfolds like a suite. The structure is flawless right up to its conclusion, "Beth/Rest", which has been much remarked upon for its unabashed and unironic embrace of 80s adult contemporary pop sounds. If you've spent any time in the vicinity of a radio tuned to light rock, you hear the keyboard tone that opens the song and you think Lionel Richie, Richard Marx, and "No One Is to Blame".
It's almost naive of Vernon to think he could pull this off. Yet, heard in context, it stands as one the record's bravest and most deftly executed moments-- not just because it lays bare Vernon's stated admiration for artists like Bonnie Raitt and Bruce Hornsby, but because it's executed to perfection. And while the production attempts to wring something new from a long-maligned sound, the song and voice remain true to Bon Iver as an idea. As a closer, "Beth/Rest" is more about finding comfort and resolution after a musical experience that asked more questions than it answered. The song draws a line in the sand for anyone with a deep investment in cool, and Vernon stands behind it with confidence. His belief in himself and in the power of his music is something that encourages us to transcend labels and preconceptions.
After the closeness and austerity of For Emma, Vernon has given us a knotty record that resists easy interpretation but is no less warm or welcoming. You can feel it even as you don't completely understand it-- a testament to its careful construction and Vernon's belief in the power of music to convey deeper meaning. It's a rare thing for an album to have such a strong sense of what it wants to be. Bon Iver is about flow, from one scene and arrangement and song and memory and word into the next-- each distinct but connected-- all leading to "Beth/Rest". On the way there, the music moves like a river, every bend both unpredictable and inevitable as it carves sound and emotion out of silence...www.pitchfork.com